Tools for Communicating with Children

By Kirsten Asbury, Occupational Therapy Student

Often, it can be difficult to communicate with a child who is still navigating the world. As teachers and as parents we may be getting pretty good at reading into the situation and understanding a child’s personality to know what they are trying to communicate. More likely than not, though, it is a trial and error process. Sometimes, when the child cannot communicate their needs, they may act out in the form of more crying, taking what they want from another child, or throwing a fit. These ways of communication can be effective if they get the child what they want, but there are positive, more effective tools we can give children to help them communicate to the best of their ability. 
 
As an Occupational Therapy student, a former TLC teacher, a care giver for a boy with Down Syndrome, and the daughter of a Sign Language Interpreter, I have a few pointers for using positive communication with children:

First, use simple and direct language. Children are still developing their ideas about the world and how they want to express themselves. Sometimes they need a little guidance on what to talk about. For example, when I was leading story time and asked questions about the book, I might have asked if the children thought the character in the book was sad? When they said yes because he had a sad face and I was also showing a sad face, I asked why the character is sad? Some children wanted to talk more about what made them sad or how to cheer up the character, but I did not lead them on with a million questions, I kept it simple and let them guide the conversation.

If the child is not at this communication level, a great method to communicate would be with choices. I used choices as a communication tool when working as a caregiver for a 9-year-old boy with Down Syndrome who was none verbal. Give the child two activity options, or even a yes or no question. Use your left and right hand to represent each option. For example, I would ask the boy if he wanted to go swimming (signaling my left hand) or go to the park (signaling my right hand). I would hold out my hands and he would point to the hand for the activity he wanted to do, and then I would repeat the answer.

Another great way to communicate non-verbally is through sign language. At TLC we use sign language everyday to communicate with children. We use it during songs, at snack time to ask a child if they want more, and throughout the day as they engage in play and table activities. Sign language offers many benefits for children: they are able to learn about Deaf culture, they are able to communicate non-verbally, especially with their non-verbal peers, and it can help them communicate when they might not know how to articulate what they want to say. Another great benefit of sign language is the use of fine motor skills. As a future Occupational Therapist I have great respect for the amount of fine motor skills that children are expected to master. So, the more they exercise those skills in a fun learning environment or at home, the more prepared they will be when it comes time to hold a pencil and communicate through their writing. 

Positive Feedback: Making Deposits in Everyone's "Bank"

by Kathy Keith, TLC Occupational Therapist

Pyramid Plus is a positive behavior development program and a philosophy we embrace at TLC.  Pyramid Plus promotes social-emotional literacy and development in children through teachings and tools that help caregivers recognize and identify a child's feelings, and help children recognize and assess their own feelings. Pyramid Plus also helps caregivers identify challenges during interactions with a child, and then identify solutions for these challenges that the child helps facilitate and implement. Oftentimes at TLC, I watch kids ages 3, 4, and 5 identifying challenges and implementing solutions in a way some adults I come into contact with can not. One former preschooler, Alistair, told his preschool teacher, "I have a solution kit in my mind!" These are the kinds of tools Pyramid Plus gives children to be compassionate problem solvers.

My training in this program has provided me with many “A-ha” moments, and has benefited me both within my therapy practice and at home with my own kids. One thing that has impacted me significantly seems so simple now: the idea of “deposits” and “withdrawals.”  According to Pyramid Plus (and common sense, if I think about it), children need 5 "deposits," or positive comments/interactions with adults, for every "withdrawal." So every time we tell kiddos “don’t,” “stop,” ask questions that require a specific answer (example: “what color is that?”), use a loud voice, make demands, or tell them “no," we are taking withdrawals from their “bank.”  

When a withdrawal is made, we need to deposit 5 positive things (compliments, words of appreciation, non-verbal and verbal praise, active listening) in order to balance the child's "bank."  It is important that these deposits are very specific. “Good job” is positive, but too general.  A general phrase like "good job" could be replaced with:

•    “I like the way you…”
•    “You must be proud of yourself for…”
•    “Tell me what you like best about your creation”
•    “WOW! What a fabulous job you have done of…”
•    “Excellent idea for…”
•    “Give me an EXTRA HUGE high five for…”

Staff here at TLC are working on putting into practice what we preach.  We have a “Positive Piggy” board hanging in the hallway where we can write and display the words of thanks and appreciation that we have for our co-workers and friends.  It has been a fun opportunity to honor the staff for all the work they do everyday.  When you think about it, we could ALL probably use a few more positive deposits, and it's so easy to fill someone's "bank," whether they are a child or a grown-up.